For so many Yalies — myself included — the summer is a time to catch up on that elusive dream of semesters past: reading for pleasure. This summer in book world was marred by the increasingly bitter and intractable feud between Amazon and the French publisher Hachette (over something to do with e-books), spurious charges of plagiarism levied against a respected historian (see below) and charges of manipulating a 100-year-old woman levied against a spurious journalist (also see below). Nonetheless, the summer saw some very good reads!
So, obviously, I figured there was no better time to discuss this summer’s best reads than after the summer, just as a new, time-devouring semester is about to begin. Most of these I have read; some I have yet to read. They are listed in alphabetical order. Enjoy!
1. “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr: “All the Light” tells the dual tale of Marie-Laure, a blind, brilliant Parisian girl, and Werner, a German orphan with hair so blonde the Nazis call it “snow.” Across pages and pages of beautiful, lyrical prose, we see Marie-Laure and Werner attempt to live through World War II — she from the exploding French countryside, and he from the unforgiving barracks of an elite Nazi military camp. For years, the two protagonists’ paths seem as if they will never cross, but, of course, they do — in an ending as cathartic as it is tragic.
2. “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” by Rick Perlstein: This long-awaited third volume in Perlstein’s epic story of the rise of American conservatism does not disappoint. Though it is an unwieldy 880 pages and almost mind-blowingly comprehensive, critics have described it as “engrossing” and “ultimately irresistible” — perhaps much like Reagan himself. “The Invisible Bridge” doubles as a political biograph, that of a nation in malaise, and an actual biography, that of the strange B-list movie actor who rose unstoppably to national prominence. Though its release was marred by charges of plagiarism, it appears that these do not hold muster. Indeed, I hope it is not a stretch to assert that they illustrate that this history, only a few decades old, remains as hot and controversial as ever.
3. “The Last Magazine: A Novel,” by Michael Hastings: This is the last work by the late, great Michael Hastings, a journalist so dynamic that you’ve probably seen his work, even if you’ve never read his stuff. (Hastings, who passed away last year in moderately suspicious circumstances, wrote the profile that took down Stanley McChrystal and penned several important pieces on the war in Iraq.) “The Last Magazine” is the semi-autobiographical story of a young journalist named Michael M. Hastings, an intern at The Magazine, who is ultimately alienated from nearly everyone he knows — his bosses included — because of his drive to cover the war in Iraq. (Sound familiar?) “The Last Magazine” is a story of the rise of a journalist and of the fall, some might say, of journalism itself.
4. “The Magician’s Land,” by Lev Grossman: The brilliant finale to Grossman’s “Magicians” trilogy, “The Magician’s Land” is magically delicious. Grossman, a former Yale doctoral candidate and a book critic for TIME Magazine, set out to write a sort of Harry Potter-Narnia crossbreed for adults. It has become so much more. The “Magicians” trilogy tells the unforgettable tale of Quentin Coldwater, a boy who dreamed of going to Princeton but found his way to Brakebills (think Hogwarts) instead. This third installment has Quentin returning to Brakebills to teach — but, of course, he can’t stay there for long. Adventures beckon, and it is up to Quentin to save one of magic’s greatest secrets. It sounds dumb, but I promise it’s not.
5. “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” by Marja Mills: Ooh, this book is controversial. It is a sort of biography of Harper Lee, the author of the beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a notorious recluse. Mills, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, traveled to Lee’s rural hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in an attempt to profile the author. Mills ended up moving in next door to Lee and Lee’s much older sister, Alice, whom she befriended. It was this friendship — as well as a release signed by the then-100-year-old Alice, that allowed Mills to write this entertaining, if relatively unsubstantial, biography. After its publication, Lee penned a bitter denunciation, claiming she had never, ever cooperated with Mills and that Mills had exploited her sister. Nevertheless, “The Mockingbird Next Door” received mildly positive reviews and sold well — all the better, probably, because of the controversy. Is it a touching, clever profile or a heartless hack job? You decide!
6. “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories,” by B.J. Novak: From one of the writers of “The Office” comes this surprisingly literary collection of short stories. As with most short story collections, “One More Thing” is difficult to describe except in the broadest terms possible: It is funny, warm, endearing and nearly un-put-downable.
7. “The Silkworm,” by Robert Galbraith: Let’s start with the awesome: Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Yeah. Moving on to the book itself, we can remain within the realm of the awesome. “The Silkworm,” Galbraith’s second mystery starring the crotchety, tough, lovable Cormoran Strike, is as much a critique of the publishing industry Rowling knows so well as it is a breathless tale of murder and revenge.
8. “Stokely: A Life,” by Peniel Joseph: This long-awaited biography by an eminent civil rights historian finally does Stokely Carmichael justice. Carmichael, a Zelig-like figure of the Civil Rights movement, went to school in the Harlem of the 1940s and the Howard of the 1950s, took part in sit-ins and marches with Martin Luther King Jr., founded the original Black Panther Party and became the iconic forefather of the Black Power movement — all before he was 27. Then, at 27, he left for Africa and adopted the name Kwame Ture, preaching an anti-imperial, largely anti-capitalist pan-African gospel until his death in 1998. “Stokely” is a vibrant story, not just of this extraordinary figure, but also of the movement he helped to create.
9. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin: This book is at once heartbreakingly sad and airily light, literary and ephemeral. It is undeniably sentimental, but it also kills off important characters with a sort of blasé shrug. “The Storied Life” tells the tale of a prematurely curmudgeonly bookseller whose life changes irreversibly when someone abandons a baby in his store.
10. “War of the Whales,” by Joshua Horwitz: This last book is a triumph of narrative journalism, the ultimate David versus Goliath story, in which several likeable Davids fight a massive Goliath on behalf of other, massive Goliaths. After a U.S. Navy submarine detection system blasts the ocean with sound waves, whales start beaching left and right. A distraught lawyer and disgusted marine biologist must team up to take on the might of the U.S. government in this epic legal and scientific thriller.